In case you’re new here, the first Wednesday of every month is dedicated to comic books, a personal passion of mine. I say “passion,” because they aren’t a hobby, they aren’t a past-time, and they aren’t just popcorn content that is here today and forgotten tomorrow. I’m totally serious when I say that comic books are (or at least can be) literature – that they can tell stories every bit as powerful and deep as a 500 pg. novel. And in a lot of ways, we’re living in a golden age of comics.
My first real experience with comics as more than super heroes came my sophomore year of college. Y: The Last Man was just ending, and as an avid reader of IGN’s comic reviews, I simply couldn’t ignore the consistent 9.5 – perfect 10 ratings it was achieving. So with no knowledge of the story, I bought the first volume, and it blew me away. Here was a comic book that swore! There was nudity! But more importantly, there were distressingly real characters coping with horrifying events out of their control. They couldn’t put on a costume and punch this reality away. It was all they could do to get out of bed each morning. Characters joined cults, ran away from their responsibilities, found solace in each others’ arms, or sought death – as real people do. Y was literally a life-changing read for me, and opened up a whole new world of literature for me.
Five-ish years later, comics have continued to tell deep, amazing stories. Ex Machina examined politics from both sides of the spectrum, with a super hero mayor as our POV character. X-Factor has become a character study in modern twentysomethings. X-Men: Legacy completely deconstructed and reconstructed both Rogue and Professor X. Runaways captured the voice of a generation. All-Star Superman took a static, relatively unapproachable hero, and made him relatable and inspiring again. And there are more amazing stories being told in every genre all the time. In particular now, I want to talk about one thing: The Weird.
I read a lot of comics. But I’m finding more and more that each month, the ones I crave the most are just plain strange. Like off-the-wall bizarre. For example…
I’ve already talked about Morning Glories at length, and you can read more of my initial reaction here.
The Premise: It’s the story of six teenagers who find themselves at the boarding school from hell. It’s just mysteries on top of mysteries.
The Weirdness: You’ve got an energy ghost serial killer. Everyone in the school shares a birthday. There’s time travel – both physical and mental. There’s a psychic girl. Twins switching places. Murder, torture, and cover-ups. There isn’t an issue that goes by that doesn’t leave my jaw hanging, yelling “WHAT THE EFFFFF???” The characters are witty, and very distinct, and I have no idea where anything is going, which is incredibly refreshing.
This was the one that actually inspired me to write this post. It’s only five issues in, so catching up is super easy.
The Premise: That the actual Manhattan Project was just a front, an excuse to gather the world’s most brilliant minds together and explore crazy technology.
The Weirdness: Teleportation gates zen-powered by Japanese Death Buddhists. Killer robots created by Soichiro Honda. A serial killer who absorbs the souls of his victims by eating them. Aliens. Robot arms. Parallel universe doppelgängers. Radioactive scientists. Dead President Computers. The list goes on. It is without a doubt the most bizarre thing I have ever read, but it somehow works. The end result is a story that is interesting, entertaining, and more than a bit chilling – especially with the cryptic hints of an impending distaster of some sort.
This one actual ended a few years ago, but it’s available in trade, so you should pick it up.
The Premise: People born in the first second of a new century have super powers. A group of these individuals comes together to protect the planet from threats both internal and external.
The Weirdness: Planetary is really an exploration of just about every genre under the comic book sun. There’s super heroes. There’s aliens. There’s a multiverse. There’s a miniverse. There’s an evil Fantastic Four. There’s magic. It’s just wonderful and entertaining and weird.
Again, I’ve talked about this one before, but still.
The Premise: Harry Potter becomes flesh. Or does he?
The Weirdness: The Unwritten is a story about story. About the power of the collective unconscious. A power that can be tapped into. When enough people believe in something, it affects reality. And throughout history, an evil cabal has sought to control the narrative. And when Wilson Taylor fights back, he uses the one thing at his disposal: his son. This story is super meta, and poses some interesting questions about faith and literature and reality.
More by Brian K. Vaughan, my literary idol
The Premise: Star-crossed lovers in an interplanetary war find love, and must run from their governments – and bounty hunters – with their new-born child.
The Weirdness: Goat-men using magic. Fairy-people using technology. Robots that look human, except with televisions for heads, that can reproduce (ummm ouch?) and apparently get STDs. A sex planet that is staffed by giant woman heads with legs. A cat that can tell when you’re lying. A spider/woman/bounty hunter. A ghost baby sitter. You know… the usual. This is a super adult story that is anchored around a family. It is shockingly emotional, and complicated, and just plain weird, and I couldn’t love it any more.
When X-Force started back in the 90s, it was a parody of itself without even realizing it. It was a terrible jumble of cliches that sacrificed storytelling for style. It was unbelievably big muscly guys (even by comic book standards) with unbelievably big “areas” wielding equally unbelievably big guns and swordsthat were IN NO MEANS PHALLIC AND IS TOTALLY STRAIGHT OK GOSSSHHH. It was all pouches and knives and guns and shooting and UGH just stop please. Now, it is so much more.
The Premise: A select squad of X-Men resolve to bloody their own hands and blacken their souls to protect those they love, by murdering their enemies with extreme prejudice.
The Weirdness: A giant dome with a time dilator, evolving at hundreds of times the rate of the rest of the planet. A clone of Apocalypse, raised in a virtual ersatz Smallville. A skinless man who can extend and control his muscle fibers. A world-class thief with multiple brains who coughs up a sentient spaceship. A parallel world where Wolverine is a psychotic genocidal dictator. Life seeds. Killer robots with consciences. A world that builds custom-powered enemies who are grown to hate you from “birth.” It is phenomenal y’all, and dark, and moving, and easily the best X-Men series in decades.
Ultimately, there are more weird comics out there than I can talk about in one post. Anything by Grant Morrison – especially Final Crisis. Any Warren Ellis (including and especially the hysterical Nextwave). Most Robert Kirkman. And so on.
So look, I know weird can be uncomfortable. It’s strange. It’s bizarre. It doesn’t always make sense. But it can also be fun as hell. It can ask questions about yourself or society without providing easy answers. It can inspire. It can terrify. So why stick to superheroes punching each other (not that that isn’t fun)? That would be like… only watching crime procedurals on CBS. While I’m at it, don’t just watch crime procedurals on CBS! Expand your horizons, and get a taste… for the weird.